Buddhist monks collect alms from locals in Luang Namtha, northern Laos in this file image. (Photo by Voishmel/AFP)
Communist governments have a habit of ratifying constitutions that guarantee freedom of religion, then ignoring them.
Laos fits into this pattern, but a sweeping new decree passed late last year, abrogating the right to personal belief, has upset religious groups and led to calls for its repeal.
Critics have banded together to justifiably argue that the one-party state is using the 'Decree on Associations' to suppress religion at its discretion.
The decree makes the government the final arbiter on what is permissible.
This means any religious activity — including association — requires layers of bureaucratic approval that are rarely granted for minority faiths such as Christianity and Islam.
Fear, loathing and the law
Laos recognizes four faiths; Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai, but it remains an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, and the communists have had to come to terms with religious clerics since they ousted a 600-year-old Buddhism-based monarchy in 1975.
Buddhism has been exempted from restrictions imposed by the new decree. However, critics have documented cases of Christians facing "threats, arrests and expulsion" in remote villages.
Ten rights' groups, including the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Amnesty International and the World Organization Against Torture, are now lobbying for repeal of the Stalinesque decree.
Recriminations are an ongoing concern. Many recall that, almost six years ago, acclaimed community development worker Sombath Sompone was snatched from a street in the capital, Vientiane, and bundled into a police car. He has not been seen since.
Soon after, the secretive nation's then President Choummaly Sayason ordered Communist Party officials to impose strict controls over groups testing his government's patience. That included political activists and labor unions as well as various religious denominations.
Laos shares a wider fear, enveloping hard-line governments throughout Indochina, of emboldened and increasingly outspoken dissidents backed by foreign funded non-governmental organizations.
Sayason reportedly warned that such forces could "destroy our country through non-violent means".
In signing-off on a letter to Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, ICJ Secretary-General Saman Zia-Zarifi noted that Laos was in breach of its international obligations, as well as its own constitution, including the international covenant on civil and political rights.
"Lao PDR has a legal obligation to respect, protect and guarantee, among others, the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of association," Zia-Zarifi stated.
"Rights to form and to join associations are inherent components of the right to freedom of association."
These obligations were ignored in the 'Decree on Associations', but Laos is not the only such offender.
Its neighbours — Vietnam, China and to a much lesser extent Cambodia — all have a long history of violating their own constitutions and international covenants, including by introducing laws to mute disagreeable opinions.
The advent of smart phones and access to information more generally via the internet, even in the remotest corners of Southeast Asia, has enabled like-minded people to organize themselves, despite oppressive officialdom.
This was evident in massive and unprecedented street protests that followed Cambodia's disputed elections in 2013, anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam and the ability of Uyghur minorities in western China to make themselves heard. Leaders are unnerved when told 'we don't like you'.
Given Cambodia's 2013 election result, its repression of dissent and the number of spoilt ballots at the most recent poll in July that returned the country to one-party rule, it is a safe bet that at least 45 percent of the population — probably a lot more — dislike their ruling politicians.
This is something that can't be measured in communist China, Vietnam or Laos, where genuine elections are anathema and, as in Cambodia, independent political surveys are banned. But numbers don't count in authoritarian one-party states, it is amplification that hurts.
These governments were slow to catch on to the self-empowerment of the digital age, but in recent years, with the aid of sometimes fickle allies in Beijing and Moscow, they have introduced sophisticated monitoring systems, deployed trolls and compromised social media outlets such as Facebook with their own political agendas.
Gale force winds approach
Sadly, it's a situation that's unlikely to change. The persecution of people because of their respective faiths — especially minority religions — will continue in Laos with laws and decrees used to ride roughshod over constitutional rights.
And, given the history of the region, little will change until the system breaks, resulting in the type of international responses, such as potentially restricting preferential trade access, that leaders would prefer to avoid.
Cambodia is facing economic sanctions because of its political repression, threatening the pockets of members of the ruling elite far more than ordinary Khmers.
Not so far away, in the fellow Buddhist-majority nation of Myanmar, military figures responsible for persecution of ethnic-Rohingya Muslims face the prospect of United Nations prosecution for 'crimes against humanity'.
The net result is that regional nations such as Laos are becoming more isolationist, to the detriment of the citizenry.
Vientiane's reaction to a dam burst on July 23, along its southern border with Cambodia, highlighted the inability of officials to deal with catastrophes and simply tell the truth.
At least 40 people died and many dozens more were reported missing. But the government lied about the death toll and moved to protect itself from the criticism it richly deserves in regard to mega-dam construction and other infrastructure projects that benefit only a select few.
The same approach of denial has been adopted towards anyone who more broadly does not comply with neatly defined Communist Party interests and dictates.
The government of Thongloun Sisoulith would be doing itself a long-term favour if it repealed the 'Decree on Associations' and encouraged free association, not least by allowing people to worship without belligerent interference.
Otherwise, the latest prescriptive decree impacting on religious and other forms of expression will constitute another disaster in the making.
This article was first published 18.10.2018.
Luke Hunt is opinion editor for ucanews.com